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“According to” works / “Basis of” works

April 22, 2010 Leave a comment

I have posted elsewhere regarding John Piper’s “future” justification. If you read Piper’s writings on the topic, he leans very heavily on the idea that the phrase “according to” means something completely different than the phrase “on the basis of” when it comes to our works and justification. He has to lean heavily, because without such a distinction he is guilty of muddying the gospel.

Here is how he argues in his book The Future of Justification:

Now we are in a better position to comment on Romans 2:13 where Paul says, “It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” Again, as we saw with verses 6–11, Paul does not say how being a “doer of the law” functions in relation to being justified at the last day. At least the same four possibilities that I mentioned above exist, plus one more: Doing the law could be (1) the basis of justification in a meritorious way; or (2) it could be the basis as Spirit-wrought fruits of faith; or (3) it could be, not the basis, but the evidence and confirmation of faith in another basis, namely, Christ who cancels the debt of all sin; or, extending that last possibility beyond forgiveness, (4) it could also be the evidence and confirmation of faith in Christ as the one in whom not only forgiveness but also divine righteousness is counted as ours. Or (5) Paul could be stating a principle that he affirms but that he believes never comes to pass for sinful people. Thus, John Stott says, “This is a theoretical or hypothetical statement, of course, since no human being has ever fully obeyed the law (cf. 3:20).”

What is not said in verse 13 is that people are justified “by works.” Paul does not use the phrase ej x e[ rgwn (“from works”), which I take to be roughly what is usually meant by the English phrase “on the basis of works,” as opposed to the phrase “according to works” (kata; ta; e[ rga auj tou` ).*** Paul is clear that “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). Rather, he says, “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28). Does this mean that the statement “It is . . . the doers of the law who will be justified” (v. 13) only expresses a principle of doing over against hearing so as to remove the objection that the Gentiles don’t have access to “hearing”?

Given the demands of the flow of the argument in Romans 2:6–16 which we saw above, I doubt that we can press this statement very far for the defense of justification by works. Paul makes a statement that in this context functions as a principle (doing, not hearing, will matter at the judgment), rather than a declaration about how that doing relates to justification—let alone whether the doing of Christ may supply what our doing lacks. The verse was not written to carry that much freight. However, the verse does raise the question that must be answered: How does the obedience of the Christian relate to his justification?

***[footnote] Wherever the phrase ej x e[ rgwn is connected to justification in Paul, the point is that justification does not happen this way. Rom. 3:20; 9:11, 32; 11:6; Gal. 2:16; 3:2, 5, 19; Eph. 2:9; Titus 3:5. In Matthew 12:37 and James 2:21, 24–25, justification is said to happen “by your words” (ej k . . . tw` n lov gwn sou) or “by works” (ej x e[ rgwn). Other contextual factors incline me to take Jesus and James to mean not that justification is “based on” our deeds the way our justification is “based on” Christ as our righteousness, but rather that our deeds confirm our faith in Jesus so that he remains the sole basis of our acceptance with God, in the sense that his death alone covers our sins and his righteousness alone provides all the obedience that God requires of us for God to be totally for us—the perfect righteousness implicitly required in the phrase, “God counts righteousness apart from works” (Rom. 4:6). It is likely that Matthew and James are using the word dikaiov w differently than Paul is (just as Matthew and Paul use kalev w differently, Matt. 22:14; Rom. 8:30). So, James and Matthew may also be appropriating the phrase “from works” differently than Paul. While Paul chooses to never employ that phrase in reference either to present justification or future judgment, James and Matthew, without differing from Paul conceptually, employ a phrase that Paul wouldn’t to say something (conceptually) that Paul would. I am not saying that there are distinct and uniform usages of the two phrases ej x e[ rgwn and kata; ta; e[ rga. The latter can carry the sense of “on the basis of” at times, though not always. Therefore, we must draw our conclusions concerning Paul’s understanding of the function of works in relation to justification not merely from the phrases themselves, but from the wider teaching of the apostle as well.

How I See Works Relating to Justification

Let me declare myself clearly here: I believe in the necessity of a trans- formed life of obedience to Jesus by the power of the Spirit through faith as a public evidence and confirmation of faith at the Last Day for all who will finally be saved. In other words, I believe it is actually true, not just hypothetically true, that God “will render to each one accord- ing to his works [ta; e[ rga auj tou` ]: to those who by patience in well- doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Rom. 2:6–7). I take the phrase “according to” (kata; ) in a sense different from “based on.” I think the best way to bring together the various threads of Paul’s teaching on justification by faith apart from works (Rom. 3:28; 4:4–6; 11:6; Eph. 2:8) is to treat the necessity of obedience not as any part of the basis of our justification, but strictly as the evidence and confirmation of our faith in Christ whose blood and righteousness is the sole basis of our justification. How this is the case, while justification is by faith alone apart from any basis in that very obedience, has been one of the main themes of my preaching and writing for the last thirty years.***

***[footnote] See most fully my extended treatment of this issue in The Purifying Power of Living by Faith in Future Grace (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1995). See also “The Pleasure of God in Personal Obedience and Public Justice,” in John Piper, The Pleasures of God (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2000, orig. 1991), 233–257; “Fighting for Joy Like a Justified Sinner,” in When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 71–94; What Jesus Demands from the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006), especially 174–180, 242–248; “Letter to a Friend Concerning the So-Called Lordship Salvation,” http://www.desiringGod.org/ResourceLibrary/ Articles/ByDate/1990/1496_Letter_to_a_Friend_Concerning_the_SoCalled_Lordship_Salvation/

So you can see what a lynchpin Piper’s interpretation of “according to” is. You can access the PDF from the link above to read more on pp 116-120.

However, Piper’s interpretation of the phrase “according to” does not stand the test, and as a result, his view of the final judgment has serious problems.

Richard Gaffin tries to argue, on the basis of the grammar involved in a similar Pauline statement, that works are not the ground of judgment: “It is not for nothing, I take it, and not to be dismissed as an overly fine exegesis to observe, that in Romans 2:6 Paul writes, ‘according (kata) to works,’ not ‘on account of (dia),’ expressing the ground, nor ‘by (ek) works,’ expressing the instrument” (By Faith, Not By Sithgt [Carlisle: Paternoster, 2006], 98-99; similarly, Venema, Gospel, 266). Though Gaffin’s comment concerns Paul’s statement in Romans 2:6, at the same time we find the same prepositional combination with the accusative in John’s statement in Revelation 20:12e, the only difference being in the use of the singular and plural pronouns (cf. Rom 2:6). Gaffin argues this point because he wants to preserve sola fide in the judgment of the works of the believer. Relying upon the analysis of Ridderbos and Murray, Gaffin’s finer point is that the judgment kata works is “in accordance with” the works, and such works are synecdochical for faith in Christ (see Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. John Richard de Witt [1975; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992], 178-81; Murray, Romans, 78-79).

Yet can such a fine distinction be supported by the grammar alone? The use of “dia” with the accusative means “because of, on account of,” and the use of “kata” with the accusative means “in accordance with, corresponding to” (Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], 368-69, 376-77). One must ask, what difference exists between the two? In fact, when we delve more deeply into the significance of “kata” with the accusative, we find that “often the noun that follows kata specifies the criterion, standard, or norm in the light of which a statement is made or is true, an action is performed, or a judgment is passed. The prep. will mean ‘according to’, ‘in conformity with’, ‘corresponding to.’ This use is common in reference to the precise and impartial standard of judgment that will be applied at the great Assize (Matt. 16:27; Rom 2:6; 1 Cor 3:8; 2 Tim. 4:14; 1 Peter 1:17; Rev 2:23)” (Murray J. Harris, “Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament,” in NIDNTT, 3:1200). Pace Gaffin and Venema, their argument apparently fails to account for judgment kata works for the wicked. This point seems to be borne out by Paul’s own use of kata, as he says, “He will render each one according to [kata] his works” (Rom. 2:6), but this rendering kata works is for both the righteous (v. 7) and the wicked (v. 8). According to Gaffin’s interpretation, are the wicked judged according to their works, but are they not the ground of their condemnation (see 2 Cor. 11:15)? Again, note how Paul uses kata: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due [to de ergazomeno ho misthos ou logizetai kata charin alla kata opheilema]” (Rom 4:4; see also Brian Vickers, Jesus Blood and Righteousness [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006] 95; Yinger, Paul, 21-26, 89-90, 135-136, 175, 182, 186). Judgment therefore is indeed kata (in accordance with, or on the basis of) works – the evil works of the unbeliever and the good works, or righteousness, of Christ.

“Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine” p. 315

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Confusing Law and Gospel (and the WCF)

February 11, 2010 10 comments

Patrick Ramsey recently posted some comments regarding the doctrine of republication and its compatibility with the Westminster Confession of Faith. I have found Ramsey’s comments on this whole issue to be very clearheaded, direct, and helpful. That is not to say I agree with him though. Mark Karlberg, a vehement opponent of neonomians, Richard Gaffin in particular, notes:

Through the penmanship of Patrick Ramsey in the essay “In Defense of Moses: A Confessional Critique of Kline and Karlberg” Gaffin attempts to undermine Kline’s theology, viewing it as contrary to the teaching of Reformed orthodoxy as formulated in the Westminster standards… Ramsey’s critique of Kline and Karlberg and his interpretation of the Reformed tradition regarding the doctrine of the Mosaic covenant are analogous in substance (if not in detail) to that of Gaffin.

Federalism and the Westminster Confession :  Mark Karlberg, p 52

This may or may not be an accurate characterization of Ramsey’s views. I encourage you to read Ramsey’s WTJ article. Here is another short post from Ramsey to give you some perspective on his view: Good Works and Salvation (and he also recently made a post about Romans 2 that I would strongly disagree with regarding our works and the judgment, quoting Thomas Schreiner, but it looks like he removed it.)

Karlberg (as well as Kline) has been very outspoken in his criticism of Westminster Philadelphia. He wrote “The Changing of the Guard” and is a friend of the Trinity Foundation. So why would I say that Ramsey’s comments critiquing Karlberg have been helpful? Well, because I think they’re true. I think Karlberg has a better understanding of the Mosaic covenant (the fact that it was works based), but I think Ramsey has a better understanding of the consequences of Karlberg’s view. Ramsey, in an effort to defend the distinction between law and gospel, has been very clear in arguing that if the Mosaic covenant is based on works, it cannot be an administration of the covenant of grace. In his recent post, he notes:

I understand how a gracious covenant that administers the gospel through types/shadows (land which is a type of the new heavens and new earth is promised and received by faith, etc.) can be an administration of the covenant of grace.

I can also see how a law covenant could serve (or be “subservient” to use an older term) the covenant of grace by exposing sin.

But how can the gospel be administered by a law/works/meritorious covenant? How does “do this and live” administer the gospel: “believe and you shall be saved”?  Undoubtedly, the answer will be by typology.  The problem with this answer is that the law covenant itself does not administer grace to the covenant member.  It simply demonstrates through typology how eternal life is achieved.  It is not itself an administration of grace.  After all, it is a law/works/meritorious covenant.  And only a gracious covenant can administer grace.  A works covenant cannot administer grace.  Hence, it seems to me that to call a law covenant an administration of the covenant of grace is to misuse the language of the Confession and to confuse law and gospel.

To quote Inigo Montoya of the classic movie The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means, what you think it means.”

Ramsey is absolutely right. The law is not of faith. However, his conclusion that the Mosaic covenant is not works based is wrong. The Mosaic covenant is a law/works/meritorious covenant.

How then do we resolve this tension? John Owen did it by removing the Mosaic covenant from the covenant of grace. And he was right to do so.

John Piper’s Justification According to Works

November 6, 2009 35 comments

I have been thrust into a study of the final judgment. It started when I read a post over at Bring the Books: If You Are Late to the Discussion. It is a summary, taken from Christianity Today, of John Piper and N.T. Wright’s views of justification. My study began when I commented that, given Piper’s view, he was the exact wrong person to be defending justification against Wright – and my comment was met with strong criticism. Here is Piper’s view:

Piper: Present justification is based on the substitutionary work of Christ alone, enjoyed in union with him through faith alone. Future justification is the open confirmation and declaration that in Christ Jesus we are perfectly blameless before God. This final judgment accords with our works. That is, the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives will be brought forward as the evidence and confirmation of true faith and union with Christ. Without that validating transformation, there will be no future salvation.

I do not believe Piper’s view is biblical. There is no “future” justification in addition to “present” justification. They are the same. In the words of Robert Reymond: “Justification possesses an eschatological dimension, for it amounts to the divine verdict of the Eschaton being brought forward into the present time and rendered here and now concerning the believing sinner.” (A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, p743).

Piper cannot consistently believe the above statement and also believe that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1) because he believes our salvation must await validation, determined by our works, on the last day.

Another consequence of Piper’s view is that he must deny justification by faith alone. I understand that he does not believe he denies it and in fact has written a whole book on it, and I thank God for that, but that just means he is inconsistent. Given that “present” justification is different from “future” justification, we can say that “present” justification does not matter because it does not determine who is going to heaven to spend eternity in paradise with God and who is going to hell to burn forever. “Future” justification is what determines our fate, and thus, “future” justification is what matters.

That being said, Piper does not believe that faith alone determines our “future” justification (keep in mind there is actually no difference between “future” and “present” justification). He believes that both our faith and our works determine our “future” justification. Granted, he does not view them equally – he believes in a sort of chain where our works connect us to saving faith which then connects us to Christ’s righteousness. But that means that it is not faith alone that unites us with Christ. Both our faith and our works play a determining role. Thus both our faith and our works are the instrumental causes of our justification.

You may say that’s unfair, that my logic must be wrong, that there’s no way Piper believes that. Well, let me offer some biblical support for Piper’s view. James says: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone(2:24). Clear enough, and if there’s any chance I have any Roman Catholics reading this, I’m sure you’re shouting “I told you so” from the rooftop.

But Brandon, you may object, James is not talking about the same thing as Paul. James is talking about our justification before men, about evidence that we look at to estimate if someone is justified. We can’t look into someone else’s heart to see if their faith is genuine. To us, faith is invisible, so we must look at the fruit of faith. I agree! But Piper does not. Piper does not believe James is talking about how we view each other here and now. No, Piper believes James is talking about the final judgment:

Several times Paul listed certain kinds of deeds and said, “those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10). In other words, when these deeds are exposed at the judgment as a person’s way of life, they will be the evidence that their faith is dead and he will not be saved. As James said, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). That is what will be shown at the judgment. (Future Grace, p366, emphasis added)

He also says:

How then can I say that the judgment of believers will not only be the public declaration of our differing rewards in the kingdom of God, according to our deeds, but will also be the public declaration of our salvation – our entering the kingdom – according to our deeds? The answer is that our deeds will be the public evidence brought forth in Christ’s courtroom to demonstrate that our faith is real. And our deeds will be the public evidence brought fourth to demonstrate the varying measures of our obedience of faith. In other words, salvation is by grace through faith, and rewards are by grace through faith, but the evidence of invisible faith in the judgment hall of Christ will be a transformed life. (Future Grace, p364)

So Piper necessarily denies justification by faith alone, as James makes very, very plain. Yet Paul disagrees: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

If you disagree with the conclusion, I would honestly love to hear why, because I cannot come to any other conclusion. (If you do comment, please do not simply list quotes of Piper affirming “present” justification through faith alone – please actually demonstrate how the points above do not lead to the necessary conclusion).

Update:

R.S. Clark recently taught on the invalidity of a “two-stage justification.” Expostion of the Nine Points (pt 9)-A Two Stage Justification?

I asked him how his teaching relates to Piper:

As to Piper, he’s just flat wrong and he needs to repudiate this teaching. It’s contrary to the Reformation, to the Reformed confessions, and to the gospel.

Related Post:

For Further Reading:

Early Thoughts on Covenant Theology

February 28, 2009 28 comments

**This posts represents my attempt to work out my understanding of these issues, and since its writing nearly 3 years ago my views have matured and been refined a little (at least I hope). Please see my posts in the covenants category. I have not arrived and would greatly appreciated helpful criticism**

Chapter VII

Of God’s Covenant with Man

I. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant.[1]

II. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works,[2] wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity,[3] upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.[4]

III. Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second,[5] commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved,[6] and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.[7]

IV. This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the Testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed.[8]

V. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the Gospel:[9] under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come;[10] which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah,[11] by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament.[12]

VI. Under the Gospel, when Christ, the substance,[13] was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper:[14] which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy,[15] to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles;[16] and is called the New Testament.[17] There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.[18]

Until recently, my understanding of covenant theology was largely limited to it’s contrast with dispensationalism. I was shown how the church is the true Israel of God, that the church is not a parenthesis between God’s real ultimate plan for the physical descendants of Abraham and how anyone who has ever been saved, from Adam to Abraham, to Moses, to David, was saved by faith in the work of Jesus Christ.

I saw that national Israel was a shadow, a type of the church. Reading Ezekial 36 and Jeremiah 31, I saw how God had saved the true Israel (Adam and Abraham and Moses and David) by replacing their heart of stone with a heart of flesh, by writing his law on their hearts, and by forgiving their iniquity and remembering their sin no more. In essence, I saw how Adam, Abraham, Moses, and David were members of the New Covenant, the only covenant of which Jesus Christ is the Great High Priest.

But as I began studying covenant theology, I became greatly confused as I learned that my understanding of covenant theology was not in fact what is commonly understood as covenant theology.

Israel/Church

For example, I began reading how national Israel was not a type of the church. National Israel actually was the church, just under a previous dispensation or administration. The argument being that God has always saved man through the Covenant of Grace and that national Israel, the Mosaic covenant, was a dispensation or administration of that one single Covenant of Grace.

Several months ago I read John Reisinger’s Abraham’s Four Seeds. One thing that stuck out, that I found frustrating, was Reisinger’s insistence that covenant theology identifies national Israel with the church. I thought that was a terrible mis-characterization of covenant theology. I didn’t believe that and I believed covenant theology. Well, now that I have actually started to study covenant theology I realize that he was right. While I don’t agree with other things in the book, I do find myself in agreement with this oft-repeated quote:

Dispensationalism cannot get Israel and the church together in any sense whatsoever, and Covenant Theology cannot get them apart.

Is the New Covenant Eternal?

Likewise, I was shocked to read Samuel Waldron’s Exposition of the London Baptist Confession and read that this single overarching Covenant of Grace is not, in fact, the same thing as the New Covenant. The New Covenant, he argues, was not inaugurated until the advent of Christ. Thus the New Covenant (as described in Jeremiah 31) is only a particular dispensation or administration of the Covenant of Grace.

James White seems to agree with this view when he says:

So, if some in the Old Covenant experienced these divine works of grace, but most did not, what then is to be concluded? That the newness of the New Covenant is seen in the extensiveness of the expression of God’s grace to all in it. It is an exhaustive demonstration of grace, for all in the New Covenant experience all that is inherent in
the covenant in the blood of the Son of God….

…Hence, when we read, “God’s law, the transcript of his holiness and his expectations for his people, was already on the hearts of his people, and so is not new in the new covenant,”11 we respond by saying it is not the mere existence of the gracious act of God writing His law on the heart that is new, but it is the extensiveness of that work that is new.

The Newness of the New Covenant

So the Old Covenant was salvific, it just was not salvific for everyone in it. The newness of the New Covenant is not that it saves, but that it saves all.

I disagree.

Did the Mosaic Covenant Save?

I do not believe that the Mosaic Covenant eternally saved anyone. I do not believe it was ever intended to. Hebrews 10:4 notes that it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. But if the Mosaic Covenant did not save anyone and if the sacrificial system it established did not take away any sins, what was the point? Hebrews 9:13-14 explains:

13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctifyfor the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify ourconscience from dead works to serve the living God.

The sacrifices of the Old Covenant purified the flesh of the Israelites. That was it’s purpose. It was never intended to purify their souls because it could not. To help explain what I am saying, it is helpful to understand the debate about “republication.”

Re-Publication

Basically, the proponents of republication claim that the Mosaic Covenant was a republication of the Covenant of Works. This is more than saying it is simply a republication of the law, for most all agree that the Decalogue was originally written on Adam’s heart and is not a new set of laws. Beyond saying it is a republication of the laws of the Covenant of Works, it says it is a republication of the Covenant of Works itself, the essential aspect being the re-establishment of a works based principle. For a good, short introduction to this issue, read R. Scott Clark’s 3-part blog post Re-Publication of the Covenant of Works.

Opponents to this view rightly object that since Adam’s fall, there is no hope for man to save himself by work. Even if, hypothetically, a man could perfectly obey the law, he is still under Adam’s federal headship, and thus he is still legally condemned. So God cannot be reinstating the possibility for man to save himself.

Since Adam failed the probationary test we cannot now fulfill the requirements of this covenant and since according to Romans 5 the curse of this failure continues in us since Adam was our covenantal head it would therefore not make sense that God would put us again under a covenant which had been broken by Adam’s disobedience (and our disobedience in Adam).
Covenant of Grace and the Mosaic Law

These men say that the Mosaic Covenant is not a covenant of works. The law is not given as a condition for man, but rather, as a guide to show the redeemed how to live. The prologue to the law in Deuteronomy 5 states: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Thus the law is given to an already redeemed people to show them how to live, thus the Mosaic Covenant is all of grace. Or so the argument goes.

But the language of the Mosaic Covenant is clearly conditional.  In Deuteronomy 27:26 we read “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” And Leviticus 18:5 states “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.”

Copies and Shadows

So is the Mosaic Covenant a re-publication of the Covenant of Works or not? Well… not exactly. It is clearly a conditional covenant based upon works, but the cursing and blessing is not exactly the same. Deuteronomy 5 states:

32 You shall be careful therefore to do as the Lord your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. 33 You shall walk in all the way that the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess.

And Deuteronomy 11:

8 “You shall therefore keep the whole commandment that I command you today, that you may be strong, and go in and take possession of the land that you are going over to possess, 9 and that you may live long in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give to them and to their offspring, a land flowing with milk and honey.

The author of Hebrews notes that the sacrificial system in Israel is a copy and a shadow of the substance, which is Christ.

Hebrews 8:4 …there are priests who offer gifts according to the law. 5 They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.”

In the same way, the Mosaic Covenant is a copy of the Covenant of Works with Adam. If Adam broke his covenant of works, he was expelled from the Garden of Eden. So to, if the nation of Israel broke it’s covenant of works, it would be expelled, or vomited from the Promised Land. And here is precisely where things begin to come into focus. Much of the covenant theology that I have read ignores the typical aspect of the Old Covenant and thus greatly misunderstands it (IMO). The entire covenant was a type, and it was not in any way part of the Covenant of Grace.

No Grace in the Mosaic Covenant?

Now, the Mosaic Covenant was not a covenant of pure works. For as soon as it was given, Moses found the Israelites worshiping an idol. The Israelites continued to break the covenant, yet they were not immediately expelled. Why? Because of the covenant that God made with Abraham. Specifically, the covenant that Christ would come from his seed (Galatians 3:15-18). Thus to expel the Israelites, to disperse them and to kill them, God would have to break his covenant with Abraham.

So how can God overlook violations of his covenant with Israel over their land? By a sacrificial system. Thus the priesthood is established and sacrifices offered as a means of purifying the flesh. It was a temporal sacrifice, that resulted in a temporal forgiveness of a temporal covenant. The entire sacrificial system of Israel was never intended to atone for anyone’s eternal damnation. Rather, it was intended to atone for their physical expulsion from the Promised Land, which is a type of the Heavenly Promised Land. And thus Hebrews begins to make much more sense:

9:23 Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.

But What of Abraham?

Then how are we to view God’s covenant with Abraham? The Mosaic Covenant is clearly related to the Abrahamic Covenant. The previously quoted passage from Deuteronomy says “that you may live long in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give to them and to their offspring.” How can we then say that the promise that God made with Abraham is conditional and based on works? That would destroy the Covenant of Grace completely.

The answer lies in letting the New Testament, God’s fullest revelation, interpret the Old.

Galatians 4:21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. 24 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia;she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written,

“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear;
break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than those of the one who has a husband.”

28 Now you,brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. 30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” 31 So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.

Go back and read that a few times. Paul says there are two covenants. He says he is speaking allegorically, but it is not the covenants that are allegorical, but the metaphorical use of the mothers. His mention of two covenants is literal. There were two covenants with Abraham: one according to the flesh, which is national Israel, the other according to the promise, which is spiritual Israel. And that is precisely why Charles Hodge can say:

“It is to be remembered that there were two covenants made with Abraham. By the one his natural descendants through Isaac, were constituted a commonwealth— an external community; by the other his spiritual descendants were constituted into a church, [invisible of course, since, at that time, the only formal organization was that of the law.] The parties to the former covenant, were God, and the nation; to the other, God, and his true people. The promises of the national covenant, were national blessings; the promises of the spiritual covenant (i.e. the covenant of grace) were spiritual blessings, as reconciliation, holiness, and eternal life. The conditions of the one covenant [the old] were circumcision, and obedience to the law; the conditions of the other were, and ever have been, faith in the Messiah, as ‘the seed of the woman,’ the Son of God, the Saviour of the world. There cannot be a greater mistake than to confound the national covenant with the covenant of grace, [that is, the old covenant with the new] and the commonwealth founded on the one, with the church founded on the other. When Christ came, the commonwealth was abolished, and there was nothing put in its place. The church [now made visible] remained. There was no external covenant, nor promise of external ‘blessings, on condition of external rites, and subjection. There was a spiritual society, with spiritual promises, on condition of faith in Christ.” “The church is, therefore, in its essential nature, a company of believers, and not an external society, requiring merely external profession as the condition of membership.

Princeton Review, October 1853 (editorial comments by R. B. C. Howell The Covenants)

Unconfessional?

Does this leave me outside the bounds of orthodoxy? Hardly. The Bible is to be our test of orthodoxy and if a tradition is found to be outside the bounds of the Bible we should not be afraid to set it aside. Yet my view is not novel. It is not unconfessional. In contrast to the WCF’s view of the Covenant of Grace, the Baptist Brethren in London saw the consistent glory of the Covenant of Grace:

Chapter VII

Of God’s Covenant with Man

1._____ The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience to him as their creator, yet they could never have attained the reward of life but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.
( Luke 17:10; Job 35:7,8 )

2._____ Moreover, man having brought himself under the curse of the law by his fall, it pleased the Lord to make a covenant of grace, wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved; and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.
( Genesis 2:17; Galatians 3:10; Romans 3:20, 21; Romans 8:3; Mark 16:15, 16; John 3:16; Ezekiel 36:26, 27; John 6:44, 45; Psalms 110:3 )

3._____ This covenant is revealed in the gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament; and it is founded in that eternal covenant transaction that was between the Father and the Son about the redemption of the elect; and it is alone by the grace of this covenant that all the posterity of fallen Adam that ever were saved did obtain life and blessed immortality, man being now utterly incapable of acceptance with God upon those terms on which Adam stood in his state of innocency.
( Genesis 3:15; Hebrews 1:1; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 11;6, 13; Romans 4:1, 2, &c.; Acts 4:12; John 8:56 )

Is WCF “Dispensational” ?

The Mosaic Covenant is not part of the Covenant of Grace. To say they are one and the same necessitates that God has worked differently throughout history, because those two covenants are fundamentally different. Patrick Ramsey has a helpful post here where he argues the same thing (though with a different conclusion). He demonstrates that one cannot affirm any kind of works principle in the Mosaic covenant while still maintaining its position in the Covenant of Grace. The “substance” or “essence” of the two are different and thus if one maintains that the Mosaic Covenant was a “dispensation” of the Covenant of Grace, they must admit that God’s work of salvation was different in “substance” or “essence” for Israel.

I recently stumbled upon an interesting observation in this regard. In his book “The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology: a Comparative Analysis” Guy Waters notes the following:

In October 2001, Steve Schlissel delivered a controversial address at Redeemer College (Ancaster, Ontario), “More than Before: The Necessity of Covenant Consciousness.”…In this address, Schlissel argued for a couple of things that would characterize his subsequent addresses and that would be paralleled in other FV pieces. First, Schlissel charged the Reformed tradition with succumbing to dispensationalism, to “fundamentalistic” and “baptistic” theologies. The Reformed, he argued, had unwittingly followed Luther’s bifurcation of the Old Testament and the New Testament. In so doing, the Reformed had neglected the genius of their key biblical insight: covenant. Schlissel asked, then, “What’s new about the New Testament? Grace? NO. Faith? NO. Christ? NO. The new thing about the New Testament is Gentiles are incorporated into Israel. THAT IS IT.”

Schlissel then charges on to implement the works principle inherent in the Mosaic Covenant into the New Covenant by saying Christians must remain faithful to their covenant obligations – and he destroys the gospel in the process. But the interesting point is that he recognizes this inconsistency in popular covenant theology. He calls it dispensational because it does not consistently apply the Mosaic principles to the New Covenant.

For Further Reading: